Saturday, April 29. It’s sunny but cold in the Northwoods of Wisconsin, and the Peshtigo River is raging from recent rains. I’m standing at the check-in table for the Pesh Fest 2017 downriver race, agonizing over whether I should sign up. I’ve been in a sort of kayaking slump for the past month or so—really the past year, since returning from the Southeast. Working towards graduating college and transitioning into graduate school has sapped much of the mental, physical, and emotional energy that I usually pour into kayaking. Less time in my boat has diminished my confidence, and memories of the death of a paddling friend still linger at the edges of my mind. All week long, I’ve been telling myself that I shouldn’t race. I truly believe that my time for feeling strong and whole on the river had passed, or is at least temporarily suspended. I should probably just leave well enough alone and stay dry. Sad, I know, but that’s how I’ve been feeling.
Somehow, I find myself being handed bib #53…I must have said yes, I want to race? I hop in the car to run a warm-up lap with Daniel before the race starts. Neither of us necessarily knows the high water lines on the Peshtigo, but we’d like to figure them out before the race. We’re about to seal launch, and I ask him whether this is a good idea—I’m feeling about 50% right now. He says that if we couldn’t do this, we wouldn’t be here doing it. I feel angry with myself for having no confidence, but I can’t articulate a good reason why I should back out. So we launch. We paddle, and we find perfect lines within the rushing mess of current. At the bottom of First Drop, I gracefully surf my way out of a meaty hole, smiling and laughing. Who said I couldn’t do this?
Fast forward a couple of hours to race time, where twelve men, one woman, and a handful of supporters huddle on the rocks at the rollicking, rain-swollen First Drop, waiting for the race to start. I’m freezing now, because my dry suit leaks, and every wave on the paddle in has found its way to my fleece layers. I’m not nervous, though, because as the only woman, I’m simply racing myself. As long as I cross the finish line below Horse Race in my boat—upside down, right side up or otherwise—I win. Plus, I know where I’m going. I know exactly what to do. The cheering from shore is deafening as I peel out to start the race, and I’m smiling crazily as I drive into First Drop. I’m on line, but somehow I lose sight of my path halfway down. I catch the edge of the voracious hole at the wrong moment, the wrong angle, the wrong lapse in my paddlestroke. Then, I’m upside down, I’ve forgotten to close my mouth, and I’m drinking in gallons of churning river. Next thing I know I’m swimming—in plain sight of the camera, the fans. I hope the racer behind me doesn’t run me over.
But again I’m laughing as I kick my way to shore above Second Drop. I’m fine, and I was already wet and cold, so what does it matter? I have all the time in the world to “win” this race. Emptying my own boat and getting back in feels good—when is the last time I completely self-rescued from a swim? I can’t even think of it. It’s rather empowering. I climb back into my boat. The rest of my lines are perfect. I shoot out the bottom of Horse Race, victorious.
I spend the rest of the day laughing about how I swam but still managed to “win”—but c’mon, ladies, we need to build up the competition next year, that was too easy! I realize that I am truly joyful, and that I feel whole on the river again. Because being a kayaker is not about always performing at the peak of your ability, even though fancy cameras are watching. It’s not about comparing your botched line in a moderate class IV rapid to the sweet lines you nailed in class IV+/V rapids at this time a year ago. It’s not about a fun little Pesh Fest trophy, and it’s not about keeping up with your friends. It’s about love—loving where you are, what you’re doing, and loving life as viewed through the splash-covered lens of whitewater. It’s about letting the people around you love you, even when you feel inadequate. I might not be paddling at the same level I was a year ago, and I might really miss the days when I could basically teach a kayak lesson in my sleep. But I’m still here; I’m outdoors, I’m with people that I love, and I’m showing women that yes we can do it, even when we swim. Yes we can get back in that boat and finish the race, and we can do so smiling. It’s up to us.
River smacks you with a flirty kiss—
laughs as you shake off its quirky kiss.
Fills every open space in your face—
eyes, nose, ears, mouth doused in thirsty kiss.
You feel the clash of its teeth, rocks,
streaking knuckles and face with an earthy kiss.
Falling out of your boat is supposed to be scary,
but River says, Human, you’re worthy of my kiss.